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Mother, shall I put you to sleep?


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Shahina KK

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By Shahina KK

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Maariyamma is likely to be killed by her children because they cannot afford her. They will give her a loving oil bath. Several glasses of coconut water. A mouthful of mud. Perhaps a poison injection. She is just one of many old parents in Tamil Nadu dying in this way. But no one blinks at these ritual murders.

IN TAMIL, it is known as thalaikoothal. A leisurely oil bath. An exercise in love and health when given to newborn children, a ceremonial beginning to festivals, and the universal answer to pitiless summers. In Tamil Nadu’s small industry hub of Virudhunagar, however, it is the beginning of slow murder. The marker of the devastating poverty that makes a son kill his own aging mother.

Maariyamma
Maariyamma – After her friend’s son turned mercy killer, Maariyamma left her village. (Photo: G. Karthick)

Young family members of this district in southern Tamil Nadu have been pushing their infirm, elderly dependents to death because they cannot afford to take care of them. When 65-year-old Maariyamma suspected this might happen to her too, she moved out of her son’s house two years ago. “I’m not well enough to live on my own, but it is better than being killed by them,” she says. Amazingly, there is no bitterness in her voice. Or anger. “They’re struggling hard to take care of their own children,” says Maariyamma, of her sons. She places no blame. Her two sons and two daughters are farm labourers who travel to different villages every sowing and harvesting season. Seeing her children at pains to run their house, and feed and educate her grandchildren, Maariyamma knew she was a burden. She knew how it would end if she didn’t leave.

Maariyamma had seen it happen to other men and women of her age. Her neighbour, Parvathy, had been paralysed at the age of 76. “She had only one son,” says Maariyamma. “And he was working in Chennai, surviving on some menial job there. How could he afford to look after his bedridden mother?” One day, Maariyamma says, Parvathy’s son came, “did it” and went back to Chennai. “What else could he do?” she asks. Again, in place of anger or fear, there is helpless resignation. And a strange empathy for the person who might elaborately plan her murder.

Thalaikoothal works thus: an extensive oil bath is given to an elderly person before the crack of dawn. The rest of the day, he or she is given several glasses of cold tender coconut water. Ironically, this is everything a mother would’ve told her child not do while taking an oil bath. “Tender coconut water taken in excess causes renal failure,” says Dr Ashok Kumar, a practicing physician in Madurai. By evening, the body temperature falls sharply. In a day or two, the old man or woman dies of high fever. This method is fail-proof “because the elderly often do not have the immunity to survive the sudden fever,” says Dr Kumar.

OVER THE years, other methods have evolved too. The most painful one is when mud dissolved in water is forced down; it causes indigestion and an undignified death. Velayudham of Help age India says the families often take the mud from their own land, if they have any. “It is believed that this makes their souls happy,” he says.

Dorairaj, a farmer in Satur, confesses that Muniammal, a distant relative, had been killed four months earlier. She was 78, and too weak to fend for herself. She was given an oil bath, but somehow survived. After a few days, she was given the ‘milk treatment’. “When the milk is being poured, the nose is held tight,” says Dorairaj. This ‘milk treatment’ is often preceded by starvation. The household stops serving the parent solid food. “When milk is poured uninterruptedly into the mouth, it goes into the respiratory track. A starving person cannot withstand even a moment’s suffocation,” says 60-year-old Paul Raj, coordinator of a district elders’ welfare association.

Though everyone seems to be in the know, thalaikoothal officially remained unexposed until the death of 60-year-old Selvaraj, of Ramasamipuram village in Virudhunagar on 18 June this year. Selvaraj, who was bed-ridden due to an accident, died suddenly. Asokan, Selvaraj’s nephew in Virudhunagar, raised the alarm on his uncle’s death. He registered an FIR, and subsequently a woman named Zeenath was arrested for administering a poisonous injection. Prabhakar, the Virudhunagar Commissioner of Police, admits that it is hard to find any evidence. “The body was cremated and there is no scope for a re-examination of the corpse,” he says.

Zeenath has been released on bail and refused to talk to TEHELKA when we met her in her village, Ramasamipuram. Some villagers claimed that Zeenath was a ‘professional mercy killer’.

‘It’s difficult to view it simply in a legal or criminal framework,’ says district collector VK Shanmugham

A few days after Selvaraj’s death came to light, a newspaper published a report exposing more mysterious deaths in the district. When the district administration of Virudhunagar learnt how widespread the mercy killing was, it ordered an investigation. “It was shocking for all of us,” says V K Shanmugham, district collector in Virudhunagar. He soon realised that conventional state responses like arrests, warnings and interrogations would not even scratch the surface.

Thalaikoothal lay in the indefinable space between crime and desperate acts of poverty. It was social custom, a collective family decision, a ritual goodbye to a loved one who had lived a full life. Sometimes, it was the victim’s own idea. Shanmugham found that many called it a path to “eternal peace”, an escape from the violence of poverty. “It is difficult to view this simply in a legal or criminal framework,” he adds.

If thalaikoothal is seen as a crime, an entire village is accomplice. Community members and relatives not only support the practice, several even arrive a day before the auspicious oil bath to meet the aged parent one last time. Everybody knows the man or woman is going to die.

“Nobody questions or reports it to the police. They don’t even see it as a crime. It is a kind of accepted practice,” says Dr Lakshmi, a physician in Karyappetti village. Over 75, Dr Lakshmi recollects that she has been hearing of this practice of killing the elderly for 34 years.

Community pardon
Community pardon: In many villages, thalaikoothal is not a crime, but a social custom.

The practice is not confined to a particular caste or community. “The poor do it, whatever their caste,” says Chandra Devi, the district Welfare Officer. Most residents are seasonal farm labourers, livestock shepherds or migrant workers in small factories in the nearby industrial hub Sivakasi. Their mobile lives make it virtually impossible for them to stay home to care for their parents.

Killing is indeed a brutal solution to financial burdens, but community members claim there is no alternative. “It does not mean that they do not love their parents,” says Chellathorai, the president of Paneerpetty village Panchayat.

Kasi: When he suspected his sons saw him as a burden, Kasi moved out.
Kasi: When he suspected his sons saw him as a burden, Kasi moved out.

Paul Raj, of the district elders welfare association, recently requested the district collector for government protection for the elderly. “The aged in these villages are highly vulnerable. We demand government’s immediate action.” Raj, however, realises that while police forces can protect an aged woman from her children, what they really need is protection from penury. “If the seniors had some income, they would not be considered so burdensome,” says Raj. “For example, if they got more pension, or at least got it regularly, it might give some respite.”

Kasi, a daily wager, moved out of his son’s house after his wife died. He’s not sure if he’s 65 or 70, but his shock of white hair, equally white handlebar moustache, and soil-black wrinkled skin are testament to his long and arduous life. Kasi had decided to leave when he watched his children grow tired of tending to their father’s every need. “I’m very fond of them, and can’t imagine they will try to kill me,” he says. “But anyway, I didn’t want to push them to any extreme step.” Whether he too would have been invited for that chilling oil bath some years down, Kasi doesn’t know. And he didn’t stick around to find out.

ACROSS VIRUDHUNAGAR, even as elderly men and women leave their homes, they make excuses for their children. “My son was struggling with his own life,” says Kasi. They put up a brave front. “I’m surviving fine with the ration rice at 2 per kilo,” says a reed-thin Maariyamma. They starve, and sigh, but do not complain. Thalaikoothal is to them not cowardly murder, but a brave farewell. Kasi and Maariyamma do not see how extreme it is, how dramatic. For them, it is a sort of practical love that is simply about survival.

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shahina@tehelka.com

Re-posted from Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 46, Dated November 20, 2010

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Manufactured Shame – The telecast of a young girl’s molestation



‘Please come quickly, she has been caught… (to the mob) the camera is here. Hold her. Hold her,’ the voice in the footage is heard saying

The telecast of a young girl’s molestation in the heart of Guwahati by a local news channel has jolted the nation’s consciousness. Ratnadip Choudhury exposes the sordid truth behind the horrific act. 

Public outcry Youngsters protesting the horrific molestation that shook up the city. (Photo: Ujjal Deb)

WHAT WAS initially touted by a news channel as an exposé on the depravity and moral turpitude in society is now emerging as an event which was manipulated by the channel to “create” news. On 9 July, the whole country was outraged by a video clip aired by News Live, a leading news channel of Assam, which showed a young girl being groped, clawed, beaten and molested in full public glare outside a pub on the busy GS Road of Guwahati, the Northeast’s biggest city.

People were shocked, the people of Assam more than anybody else. Public morality had hit an all-time low. How could this happen on a busy street of a state capital? How could bystanders watch as a mob of not less than 30 men humiliated a young girl? Where was the police in all this? There was a storm of outrage as social media sites went into overdrive. Questions were raised and debated, calling for a strong protest against this heinous act.

Amidst all this clamour, another question gnawing at the sides was the role played by the news channel, News Live, which filmed the whole episode. RTI activist and leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) Akhil Gogoi claimed to have laid his hands on video clippings that demonstrated that the News Live reporter who filmed the whole incident had instigated the mob. TEHELKA has reviewed these clips and the truth is horrifying.

Akhil alleged that Gaurav Jyoti Neog, the News Live reporter who had called in his camera unit to film the incident, had orchestrated the molestation to “manufacture” a “sensational news piece” to boost the channel’s TRP. “News Live is promoted by Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma, his wife Riniki Bhuyan Sharma is its chief managing director (CMD),” says Akhil. “The channel has been involved in false and fabricated news from the start, but this one has been the most unethical. News Live reporter Gaurav Jyoti Neog has instigated the molestation and I have video footage to prove that.” The raw footage has since been handed over to state DGP Jayanto Narayan Choudhury. Sources say that in its preliminary report to the Union home ministry, the police has hinted at the reporter’s involvement in instigating the molesters. Gaurav has been working for News Live since 2009.

Interestingly, the News Live office is located at Christian Basti, not far from Club Mint Bar where the incident occurred. The channel has admitted that Akhil got the footage from somebody in their office. TEHELKA has found that there were people in the office who were against this kind of unethical journalism, and these were the people who handed over the footage to Akhil to blow the lid off the whole episode. The channel’s Managing Editor Syed Zarir Hussain has admitted that it was a News Live reporter who shot all the raw footage. There are two shots of footages. One shot by an open camera used by channels to cover news, and the other footage, which actually indicts the news reporter was shot by the reporter himself on his own mobile camera. The digital camera visuals were shot by News Live reporter Dibya Bordoloi and his cameraperson Jugal, reporter Gaurav Jyoti Neog shot the other clips with his cell phone.

Permanent scar A video grab of the girl being molested by the mob in Guwahati

In a reconstruction of the hitherto unaired footage, we have tried to recount what happened outside the Club Mint Bar on the evening of 9 July.

According to News Live, reporter Gaurav Jyoti Neog was on his way home from work when he heard the ruckus outside Club Mint (the bar is about 200 metres from the channel’s office) and started shooting with his cell phone. Sensing something sensational afoot, he asked his office for a camera unit to be sent to the spot.

Though the channel claims that Gaurav had asked the news desk to inform the police, nothing in the raw footage or otherwise that establishes this claim. The Assam Police has maintained that they received no calls from News Live or any other media organisation informing them about the molestation. The first calls it got, the police claims, came from Club Mint and later from the Hotel Gateway Grandeur, situated close to the pub.

The footage starts at the point after two girls have been thrown out of the pub following a scuffle over a lost ATM card as the victim recollects later. The girls are waiting on the road for an autorickshaw, when ambient noises are heard in the background. The conversation is not very clear. Later, one can see that a group of boys, who were standing outside the bar at a wine shop, had been recording the girls’ movements with their cell phones and had passed some comment. One girl in a white T-shirt and a pair of shorts slaps one of the boys. The footage then shows the girl engaged in a physical struggle with the boys. The other — the victim — is wearing a black top and shorts. A male voice is heard: “Send a camera immediately near the income tax office.” Akhil claims this is the voice of the News Live reporter Gaurav, a fact admitted by the channel, which has aired the same visual with the same voice claiming it to be Gaurav’s.

FURTHER, THE raw footage shows the other girl being chased by a group of boys. Someone shouts: “Catch her, make her naked, make her naked, catch her.” This voice is strikingly similar to the voice the channel admits belongs to Gaurav. (The authenticity could only be proved by a forensic examination, but ex facie it does appear to be Gaurav’s) This can be deduced from the circumstances around the clippings. In a situation where there is a lot of noise in the background, it is likely that the most audible voice will be of the person holding the phone. Also, most of the people voice matches the earlier male voice that News Live had itself identified as belonging to Gaurav.

What follows there after are horrific scenes of the girl being pulled from all sides, thrashed and fondled. Someone pulls her top to expose her bra, another man gropes her private parts when she is pinned down. She cries and shouts for help, and tries her best to free herself. A voice is heard saying: “Make her naked, let people see her… she is a prostitute and she dares to do this.” The molestation gets even more violent, more brutal. The frame, albeit shaky, is clear enough to see the girl struggling all the while screaming “help, help!” This blood-curdling scene plays out again and again. Bystanders can be seen watching, some from a distance, some to get a ringside view. No one comes forward to help the traumatised girl.

Hunter-to-hunted Rup Kanta Kalita (27), Deba Das (22), Nabajyoti Barua (22), Jitu Moni Deka (30) and Dipak Deb (50), five of the alleged accused being produced before the CJM Court on 17 July

As the recording continues, the same male voice is heard again, this time distinctly: “Please come quickly, she has been caught… (to the mob) the camera is here, hold her, hold her.” Circumstances suggest that this could again be Gaurav’s voice, because he has called his colleague at the News Live office, Dibya Bordoloi to come to the spot with a camera team.

Night duty reporter Dibya Bordoloi arrives with the cameraperson. The camera rolls, this time with the lights on. The face of the main accused Amarjyoti Kalita becomes distinct here. Kalita in a red T-shirt and a cap, takes charge of what has by now become a circus. The footage shows how the girl breaks away twice from the molesters, only to be brought back each time. Pulled by her hair, her jacket ripped apart, her undergarments visible, the mob was enacting a “live act” in its most horrific form. Amarjyoti was pulling the girl by her undergarments, another assaulter was pulling her by her hair. This part of the raw footage caught on News Live cameras holds the key for the police investigation. This is the part that Akhil has not released to the media and News Live has not aired.

Many questions arise out of this. Did any of the molesters personally know the reporter? Police sources confirmed that almost all the molesters whose faces have been identified did not have prior criminal records. A well-placed source in the Assam Police has confirmed that Gaurav knew prime accused Amarjyoti pretty well; a few others in the mob knew each other since they worked in the same area.

So the question automatically veers towards the intent of “manufacturing” news. Or does it go deeper than that? Only a forensic test of the raw footage will throw up conclusive answers. Managing Editor Hussain defends his reporter. “It is because News Live had aired the visuals that the molesters are behind bars,” he says. “If we had given the footage to the cops directly, it would have been put in cold storage as has happened frequently in the past.”

Even after Mukul Kalita and some other people restore order and call the cops, Amarjyoti Kalita is still seen trying to grab the girl from behind

In the open camera footage, the perpetrators were clearly enjoying being filmed. Some were even smiling at the camera. Gaurav is also seen wearing a black T-shirt and a pair of jeans. “Initially, Gaurav tried to protest, but things went out of control so our reporters kept rolling,” defends Hussain. TEHELKA found no video frames or audio streams in the raw footage, to remotely suggest that Gaurav tried to dissuade the mob at any time. Though the footage does show that the other reporter Dibya shouts at the molesters and even tries to rescue the girl. Despite numerous attempts to contact Gaurav, the reporter was not available for any comment.

The footage then shows the girl running towards traffic on the busy GS Road asking car drivers for help. The mob follows her shouting that she is a prostitute. Incredibly, this seems reason enough for people not to intervene in what they could have seen as an act of moral policing. A man on a motorcycle tries to stop the crowd, but in vain. It is only when vernacular daily Ajir Axom’s senior journalist Mukul Kalita, who happened to be passing by, interferes, that some other people also come to the rescue of the girl. Dibya also tries to bring some order. No such effort is made by Gaurav.

After some order has been restored, Gaurav is heard shouting at Dibya for not carrying the channel mic ID (channel logo attached to the mike) and snatches the gun mic before asking the victim: “Please tell me what happened.” What the girl says is perhaps the most telling statement in the footage. “I was returning home after attending a birthday party, you have done it… you people have done it,” she says. This is a shocking revelation. Akhil claims that the victim was talking about Gaurav and the molesters. News Live claims nothing is conclusive; traumatised as she was, the girl might have meant all the people or some people around her, or may be venting at the constant rolling of the camera.

Atanu Bhuyan Tarun Gogoi
Former News Live Editor-in-chief Atanu Bhuyan; Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi addressing the media

TEHELKA has in its possession a copy of the victim’s statement at the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court. Written in Assamese, one section of the statement reads thus: “…they started to tear off my clothes; a media team was shooting the scene instead of helping me. The mob tore my clothes and started groping my private parts. I somehow saved my face from being exposed by the camera. I was shellshocked. A gentleman saved me, the police arrived and dropped me home.”

The footage reveals people led by Mukul Kalita trying to convince cops to reach the spot fast and also trying to ensure the girl’s safety. Even then, Amarjyoti Kalita is seen smiling and grabbing the victim from behind.

Above the din, Dibya is heard telling Gaurav: “This girl’s career, future is ruined.” After a brief pause, a voice, probably Gaurav’s, is heard: “Ruined meaning?” Leaning towards Gaurav, Dibya’s face is visible for a second. “I have done all this!” someone says. Though TEHELKA cannot independently verify this, a comparison with other audio streams in the clip gives the impression that the voice making this boast belongs to Gaurav. The footage ends with the girl being taken away by the police. The molestation even then and the mob groped the girl even while she was seated in the police van.

THE COPS have already taken voice samples of Gaurav and confiscated the News Live camera, tapes and computers where the video footage was processed. The memory card of the cell phones that he was using has also been sent for forensic tests. After Akhil handed over the raw footage to the cops, Gaurav resigned from News Live. In his defence he said he had quit to ensure “a free and fair investigation”. On 18 July, he applied for an anticipatory bail at the Gauhati High Court, though he still has not been named an accused or detained by the police.

Launched in January 2008, News Live gained reputation for its smart presentation, vast coverage and a knack for breaking news before anyone else. The past few months had seen the channel dedicating huge chunks of airtime to what many describe as “on-air moral policing”. From stories of young girls getting drunk and unruly scenes inside bars and on the streets to hosting regular panel discussions on what women should wear, the channel was almost on a moral crusade.

In 2011, News Live Editor-in-chief Atanu Bhuyan made it to the headlines of national dailies after he made unsavoury comments about Aahom girls from upper Assam. The Tai-Aahom Students’ Union had even locked down News Live bureau offices in upper Assam towns.

Interestingly, Akhil’s claims of “manufactured” news got approval from an unexpected quarter. In a press conference, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi came down heavily on the news channel. “I cannot approve the fact that the TV crew went on rolling their tapes for almost 45 minutes without making efforts to save the girl,” said a stern-looking Gogoi. The chief minister has asked the CID to investigate the role of the channel in the molestation. A team of police officers led by DGP Choudhury has been entrusted with the task of nabbing the culprits. The chief minister has said that a crackdown will happen without infringing on the freedom of the press.

Of the 14 molesters who have been identified, the cops have already arrested 12. At the time of going to press, two, including prime accused Amarjyoti Kalita — a casual employee of the state government’s information technology agency AMTRON — were still absconding.

Angry wave Social activist Akhil Gogoi leading a demonstration in front of the News Live office on 15 JulyPhoto: Ujjal Deb

Editor Atanu Bhuyan quit his office, not owning moral responsibility, but citing apprehensions that the chief minister would “pressurise” the management to sack him. For his part, the CM got the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW) Mamta Sharma to visit Guwahati and meet the victim, after an earlier NCW fact-finding team led by Alka Lamba left Guwahati without meeting him. Lamba was later removed for naming the victim during a press conference. Shockingly, even the CM’S office repeated the same callousness. After Tarun Gogoi had met the victim, the CM’s office released pictures of the girl with Gogoi. Not only this, they even revealed her identity. Though Gogoi later apologised for the slip-up, asking the media not to publish the pictures, he continued naming her.

THE INCIDENT has scarred Assam. The state that prides itself on its treatment of women has now been reduced to a group of bystanders. “The rest of the country protested violently, people started calling Guwahati a city of bystanders,” says Guwahati-based author Ayushman Dutta. “People watched with voyeuristic pleasure the horrific scenes of a girl being ravaged on the streets. Some even took photos and made the odd MMS, but no one stopped their car to help her, they did not even bother to lower their car windows.” The incident has also sparked a debate on the mad race of news channels for TRPs.

Interestingly, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), both of which have never missed a chance to issue diktats on New Year’s or Valentine’s Day, have maintained a stony silence on this.

But, it is with the police that the buck finally stops. The government has put the wheels in motion. The SSP, Guwahati city, Apurba Jibon Baruah has been transferred. “We are looking at all aspects of the evidence. If the reporter and the channel are found guilty, we will act,” says DGP Choudhury.

The brutality was not confined to the street. NCW member Alka Lamba, and even the CM’s office, named the victim without a care for her reputation

Tarun Gogoi has declared that he will create the position of a City Police Commissioner. But many of the recommendations of the expert committee constituted after the 2008 serial blasts in Guwahati has been kept in cold storage. “Almost all our recommendations have not been implemented,” says HK Deka, former DGP and member of the expert committee on police reforms. “With the city moving fast to becoming a metro, police modernisation is a must, transferring the SSP is not a solution.” In size and population, Guwahati is similar to Bhubaneswar. However, where the Odisha capital has 3,500 dedicated police personnel, the Guwahati City Police has 210 sub-inspectors and 1,300 constables manning the streets. Nowhere is this void felt more than in the pubs and clubs of the city.

But for all this, if it turns out that the media has behaved in a callous manner, its very relevance will be questioned. If proven true, this would perhaps be the first incident in which a media house has had a frighteningly complicit role in a despicable crime against a woman. While it is almost sure that this is our News Of The World moment, media houses, especially electronic media, need to rethink their priorities: higher TRPs or news ethic. Until that happens, the spectacle will continue.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
ratnadip@tehelka.com

Reproduced from Tehelka

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